Monday, May 1, 2023

No, Maine almost certainly is NOT the child abuse capital of America – and the group making that claim ought to know better

Maine State Capitol

One thing data really do show: the Maine family police seem to have an abiding hatred of Hispanic families

The Maine Children’s Alliance sure captured a lot of headlines with a claim that is almost certainly false; a claim that will only hasten the state’s retreat from reform and endanger more children.  It’s the same false claim, ignoring the same caveats from the same data source, that misled Kentucky media for years: The “We’re #1 in child abuse!” claim. 

If anything, this kind of misuse of data is even worse in Maine.  That state’s child welfare “ombudsman” and a former lawmaker with a particularly ugly track record have been fueling a foster-care panic, leading an effort to tear apart a system that once, briefly was, relatively speaking, a national model.  

It’s not out of the question that Maine is the state with the highest rate of child abuse.  The odds are roughly 1 in 52.  But no one knows which state has the most “child abuse” – because the data actually measure only the subjective, sometimes biased judgments of individual caseworkers, judgments that can vary enormously from state to state and year to year.  

In Maine, for example, a lot of caseworkers apparently loathe Hispanic families.  Though there are not very many of them, a new study – a real one – shows that more than one-quarter of Hispanic children in Maine will be forced into foster care at some point during their childhoods.  Worse, 15% of Hispanic families in Maine will have their children torn from them forever.  And that really is the highest rate in the nation.  So does Maine really attract Hispanic child abusers at an astounding rate – or is there a whole lot of racism in the system? Are those Maine data revealing the extent of child abuse or the extent of racial and class bias in general and anti-Hispanic racism in particular? 

A deeper dive

Now, let’s dig deeper into the data.  Where does that “worst-in-the-nation” claim come from?  The Maine Children’s Alliance relies on the KidsCount database maintained by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  Casey, in turn, gets the data from the federal government’s National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS).  That’s the same source used by the federal government to compile its annual “Child Maltreatment” reports.

As a group supposedly as savvy as the Maine Children’s Alliance should know, that same report (right upfront on page 5) comes with a crucial warning:

[R]eaders should exercise caution in making state-to-state comparisons. Each state defines child abuse and neglect in its own statutes and policies and the child welfare agencies determine the appropriate response for the alleged maltreatment based on those statutes and policies. 

But, hey, why spoil a great narrative that will “raise awareness” of child abuse, with inconvenient facts?

Here's why:

What the NCANDS data actually measure is the percentage of the child population for whom family police caseworkers (a more accurate term than child protective services workers) check a box on a form saying they think it’s at least slightly more likely than not that a parent or caretaker abused or neglected a child.  This can be little more than a caseworker’s guess.  The data about Hispanic families in Maine suggest how subjective these judgments can be.

Now, let’s unpack this further:

For starters, headlines claiming that these data measure “child abuse” are flat-out false.  The figure is for alleged abuse and alleged neglect combined.  And it’s mostly neglect.  In Maine,  more than two-thirds of cases deemed by workers to be “maltreatment” involved neither physical abuse nor sexual abuse.  Sometimes neglect is extremely serious; more often it means the family is poor – (or as we’ve seen in Maine, sometimes it may just mean the family is Hispanic).        

Defining “substantiation”

As we’ve also seen, the federal data on which the Maine Children’s Alliance report relies do not, in fact, measure child abuse or neglect. Rather they count the number of times caseworkers allege abuse or neglect.

The allegation does not mean there was a comprehensive investigation followed by a decision from a neutral arbiter.  Rather, it means only that an often overwhelmed, underprepared caseworker checked a box on a form.  In Maine, as in 38 other jurisdictions, workers can check the box when they believe only that it is slightly more likely than not that what the state defines as abuse or “neglect” occurred.  Seven jurisdictions have a higher standard, six have a lower standard (D.C. and Puerto Rico bring the total to 52). This is still another reason states can’t be compared. Similarly, Maine’s family policing agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, claims that the Maine data include a category DHHS calls “indicated” for less serious cases that other states don’t include at all.

A trend or a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The Maine Children’s Alliance report includes a graphic purporting to show that the rate of “child maltreatment” doubled in Maine even as it’s declined nationwide.  In fact, the sharpest increases occurred after Maine’s former “Trump-before-Trump” governor, Paul LePage, demanded a more aggressive approach to tearing apart families and then, again, after child abuse fatalities made headlines.  So what actually is being measured is the extent to which caseworkers run scared because they don’t want one of their cases to incite the wrath of politicians and/or media. 

Reports like the one issued by the Maine Children’s Alliance create a vicious cycle.  Fearmongering by politicians prompts caseworkers to needlessly “substantiate” cases and needlessly take away children they otherwise wouldn’t.  Then the supposed “increase” in “child maltreatment” provides more fodder for the fearmongers.  That leads to another vicious cycle: All those additional needless investigations and removals further overload caseworkers, so they have even less time to find the few children in real danger

I’m sure the folks at the Maine Children’s Alliance would insist they really, truly don’t want any of that.  They’re just offering up these numbers in the name of promoting “prevention.”  After all, their report mentions prevention a lot and even says that taking away children can be bad for them.

But fearmongering and misuse of data in the name of a good cause are what created the wretched mess that is the American system of family policing in the first place.  You may be sure that the ombudsman and the former legislator will cite this report over and over as they insist there is no such thing as needless removal of children in Maine and, if anything, we need to take away even more. 

Actually, we DO need to “quibble about numbers

When those pushing for more policing of overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite families, more massive surveillance and more removal of children to foster care – or even those who say they’re just doing it to “raise awareness” and promote “prevention” -- get caught with their data down, they have a standard response. Usually, it’s some variation of: “How dare you quibble about numbers! Children are dying!  Even one case is too many!

The second two sentences are, of course, correct.  But we’ve been suckered by fearmongering, hype and hysteria for decades.  At least one organization responsible for a lot of it effectively admitted as much. They even have a name for it: “health terrorism.”   As a result, we’ve spent those decades embracing “solutions” that only make things worse.

The horror stories represent a tiny fraction of the cases seen by workers for Maine’s family police.  To move closer to geting that tiny fraction down to the only acceptable number -- zero -- requires a vastly different approach than an ever-expanding child welfare surveillance state.  It requires the approach Maine once embraced, when it embraced family preservation and made all children safer.

We damn well do need to “quibble about numbers.” The Maine Children’s Alliance should have done a lot more quibbling before putting out its misleading report.

So, does Maine have more “child abuse” than any other state?  Since there’s a 1 in 52 chance,  I don’t know.  And, Maine Children’s Alliance,  neither do you.